Fellowship is at the heart of emergency response in Nigeria

When Amir Bature came to MIT from Bayero University Kano (BUK) in Nigeria as part of the Empowering the Teachers (ETT) program, he was amazed at his shift in perspective during his time on campus. “The first time we arrived at MIT, there were a lot of things where we said ‘no, this is impossible.’ But before we left, it was all possible!” He had no idea that he would soon be applying this mindset to a public health crisis in his home country of Nigeria.

ETT is unique among the many programs offered through MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI). Not only is it one of the few programs to bring fellows to the MIT campus, but it is the only program where all participants are PhD-level faculty leaders in their own right. Each spring and fall, a small group of ETT fellows arrives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to learn new tactics for student engagement with the goal of bringing that knowledge back to their home institutions in Nigeria. Active since 2011, each group of returning fellows strengthens the ETT alumni community and reinforces the bond between MIT and Nigerian institutions.

As Covid-19 began to overtake the world, the ETT fellows watched the disease wreak havoc on countries with a far more robust medical infrastructure than Nigeria. With the virus fast approaching, they knew there had to be something they could do to help their country. One of the most urgent problems they saw arising worldwide was the lack of ventilators. While Nigeria has a population of 200 million (nearly two-thirds of the United States), the country only has a few hundred ventilators, with most of those clustered in a few urban areas. It was evident that coming up with an affordable and portable solution was going to be critical in order to save lives in the fight against Covid-19.

When ETT Faculty Director Professor Tayo Akinwande first came across plans for the MIT Emergency Ventilator (E-Vent), he saw the potential the device had to assist with the health crisis in Nigeria. The E-Vent project proposed an innovative plan to automate manual resuscitators as a potential means for longer-term ventilation. Its portability and affordability made it an ideal solution, and he knew it could be deployed by ETT alumni in-country. “ETT fellows all have a trailblazing spirit,” says Akinwande. “They are leaders in their fields and well-positioned to make a life-and-death impact across Nigeria.” He digitally approached the fellows with the plans for MIT’s E-Vent, and they were instantly inspired.

President of ETT Fellows Alumni Network Victor Odumuyiwa helped mobilize the plan. “After talking with Tayo, we said, ‘OK, let’s see what the fellows’ network can do so that we can have more people contributing to this,’” says Odumuyiwa, senior lecturer and director for the Center for Information Technology and Systems at the University of Lagos. Through the network, they quickly worked to unite groups of fellows nationwide.

Many of the fellows had already been hard at work with their respective teams across the country. They quickly unified their efforts and began strategizing together. This cooperative effort was critical in facing the endless hurdles faced when trying to take the E-Vent from design to fabrication in Nigeria. The lack of resources and current lockdown required a great deal of creativity and teamwork to manage. “I didn’t have access to my workshop, but I immediately knew who could do this,” says Olusoji Ilori, senior lecturer in the Department of Electronic/Electrical Engineering at Obafemi Awolowo University. “I have been to the Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT), and I knew Dr. Ameer Mohammed had everything he would need in-house. They were able to make drones with local materials, so I knew they would be able to make such a thing very fast.”

The fellows have been met with overwhelming support from their respective teams as they work on their prototypes. Mohammed’s team at the AFIT showcased prototypes early last month, and the Nigerian chief of air staff offered them any necessary support for the project. Fellows at BUK mobilized a team consisting of other members of staff in the faculty of engineering and obtained special permission to access their labs, even with the rest of the city in full lockdown. “We try to show that whatever we say, we can push and make it happen,” says Muhammad Buhari. “Whatever we say we want to do, the university feels that, yes, this is going to happen and this is going to help.”

Teams have been successfully advancing on the E-Vent project using locally available materials. “We were able to develop a prototype in which we use a car wiper motor due to the non-availability of the required DC motor,” says Mubarak D. Muhammad from the BUK team. “We also developed our own control algorithm.” This new milestone is key, as while MIT’s plans for the E-Vent are available, their code to operate it is still being finalized. Now that the team at BUK has successfully developed their code (control algorithm), they have created the first working prototype. The next challenge is testing (animal and clinical trials). As this is perhaps the first medical device ever built in Nigeria, teams have had to create their own rigorous testing protocols.

The ventilator was only the beginning of the fellows’ work to help support their country in the fight against Covid-19. They have other plans in progress, including designing sanitization machines, isolations units, and personal protective equipment, as well as developing new data visualization and prediction models.

“I am so amazed by what the fellows have been accomplishing,” says ETT Program Manager Yoav Danenberg. “They truly embody what our program is all about: investing in people to make a real difference in the region.” The MISTI team is excited for the future of the ETT program. It is evident that their mission to support teachers and research in Nigeria has spread far beyond the classroom, and they look forward to welcoming the future fellows as a lasting part of the MIT community.

As for the fellows on the ground in Nigeria, they are just getting started. A running prototype and active models have been substantial early wins, but these are just the first steps for the teams on a mission to save lives. The fellows are checking in regularly on a consistently growing list of concurrent projects that have also attracted support from Total Nigeria. Total is a major partner that makes MISTI’s ETT program possible, and their interest will help the teams save even more lives across the country, creating a much better forecast for the country than might have been imagined one month ago.

“That’s the MIT spirit, you have to find a way,” says Buhari. “We don’t see anything as insurmountable. We feel we can do anything we want to do. We are free to do it.”